With the new budget for the U.S. military finally being passed, Congress has now blessed the Navy’s admirals with the ability to implement the first wave of a new strategic effort that relies less on carriers and more on smaller ships supported by unmanned vessels. Yet, this effort to innovate the Navy’s doctrine has seen Congressional pushback during the debates over this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. If this pushback continues, it will sink U.S. ships and leave any future attempts of U.S. power projection in a ship-breaking yard, which would leave robust U.S. challenges to Chinese aggression towards the liberal international order that the U.S. has committed itself to defend.
The U.S. Navy rings in 2022 full of challenges. It finds itself the first responder to security threats as the U.S. addresses China’s territorial claims throughout the Indo-Pacific and vies for influence in the same space. Political scientists, and their students who serve in Congress, have long understood naval fleets helmed by aircraft carriers as the primary instrument of U.S. power projection, which the U.S. can use to display a commitment to U.S. interests. Aircraft carriers and their supporting vessels essentially act as floating fortresses, able to quickly move mountains of forces to respond to crises and demonstrate U.S. resolve without the commitment of a permanent military base. This reliance on aircraft carriers hasn’t just been noticed by academics but by U.S. adversaries. China has invested heavily in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons to prevent the Navy’s ships from reaching any potential battlefield in a war with China. The Chinese military has already begun to test these weapons using mock-ups of U.S. aircraft carriers.
The U.S. has various defensive commitments throughout the region, and the Biden administration has openly talked about extending that support to Taiwan, which China views as a rogue province. If the U.S. wants to get serious about confronting Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, the Navy needs to innovate new cost-effective strategies, technologies, and vessels that allow it to remain adequate to support allied forces in the region.
The Navy is ahead of the game and has begun to re-evaluate its naval strategy and tactics to accommodate for these rising challenges. For example, late last year, the Navy conducted a classified wargame, known as “Global 14“, which focused on a hypothetical Pacific conflict. Although the parameters of the exercise and its specifics are unknown, this exercise has made the Navy’s leadership initially confident in their current capabilities. However, “Global 14” demonstrated a need for U.S. Marines and Sailors to share home bases outside of the U.S. together. In addition, after the Millennium Challenge exercise showed that “red teaming” provided a valuable tool to analyze the effectiveness of current strategies, it is likely that “Global 14” accounted for developments in A2/AD systems. This alone should give both Americans and Congress confidence that the U.S. Navy is on the right path in developing its capabilities to confront new challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
The Navy has also advocated for new types of vessels to serve U.S. interests that are less likely to be big hulking targets in the middle of the ocean. Small surface vessels, such as frigates, were given a more significant priority in the Navy’s fiscal year budget. In contrast, aircraft carriers and other large ships continued to see a debate bogged down by Congressional constraints and the desires of ship manufacturers. The Navy has also been pushing for unmanned vessels to perform anti-mine and submarine operations, reconnaissance, and even carry extra missiles for regular crewed vessels. However, funding for these still developing projects is being cut even after an unmanned Navy vessel crossed 98% of the Pacific remotely, proving the Navy has demonstrated that these unmanned vessels can be effective. This frees Sailors from dangerous and dull activities that would allow the Navy to utilize them in other productive roles that support the Navy’s initiatives in countering Chinese aggression.
While these initiatives are currently setting sail, other critical vessels remain docked in the harbors. Chief among these is the idea of a “light carrier,” which, as the name implies, is a smaller version of the large Ford-class the Navy currently employs. Although the Admirals have pushed against this idea, believing that the costs of a light carrier program would outweigh the benefits, they have begun to re-evaluate light carriers since they could be helpful to launch unmanned vertical-takeoff aircraft. However, Admirals remain cautious about committing to light carriers due to the current composition of carrier air wings despite the F35, regarded as a replacement of the Navy’s current fighter, having vertical take-off capabilities. Moreover, light carriers would give Admirals more flexibility in responding to crises derived from Chinese aggression and their development of A2/AD capabilities.
However, building light carriers is not all the Navy, and Congress can do to create an innovative, cost-effective way to respond to growing Chinese aggression. By pairing these new fleet concepts with increased involvement and investment with the navies of U.S. allies, the U.S. can supplement its forces within the Indo-Pacific and demonstrate U.S. trust and faith in its allies. For example, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) can be a valuable blueprint for the U.S. to develop other ship-building and technology sharing programs with its other Indo-Pacific allies, reducing its burden throughout the region. The U.S. can also involve its allies in its regular voyages through the Taiwan Strait, which shows the U.S.’s commitment towards the region.
The Navy will be the branch that will let the U.S. stay afloat in checking Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, and Congress needs to support their initiatives that innovate their structure and capabilities. Not doing so would lead to a massive loss to the U.S.’s ability to project power, commit to its allies, and increase Chinese aggression.
Peter Roberto is a first-year M.A. candidate at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations specializing in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Security. He is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations and is participating in this year’s National Security Fellowship. Peter earned his bachelor’s degree from George Mason University in Criminology, Law and Society in 2021. This is his second piece published with the Journal.